Profile: Saskia Havekes on arranging success
Apr 1, 2017
From its home in Potts Point, Sydney, Grandiflora has grown from a charming and distinguished florist into a globally recognised platform through which its founder, Saskia Havekes, has expanded her passion for flowers. The Grandiflora brand has since produced five fragrances and four books – one of which, Grandiflora Arrangements, was composed in collaboration with Havekes’ partner, photographer Gary Heery.
In March 2017, the couple combined their professional skills once again to stage The Flower Whisperer, a theatrical installation at Sydney’s Yellow House. The event showcased the beauty of real and photographed flowers, complemented by a performance from the Australian Art Quartet – a “midnight garden” conceived by Havekes, Heery and creative director Tony Assness. In conversation here, Havekes reflects on a childhood spent revelling in the natural world, and the joys of an adult life dedicated to visual discernment and olfactory adventures.

Thomas Phongsathorn: You say that you do not arrange flowers, you curate them. How is what you do different to the craft of a more conventional florist?

Saskia Havekes: My medium is flowers, and each time I go to the flower markets I’m sourcing elements to make an experience for people. I’m immersed in the brief and my interpretation of the space that I am working with, as well as the occasion itself and its accompanying emotions. Nothing is formulaic or predictable in my work; there are no pre-existing patterns.

TP: Was there a point in your life at which you realised you had an unusual and powerful understanding of flowers and fragrance?

SH: My training was in my childhood. My father coached me in observing nature and style, and in striving for excellence in creative work. My obsession with flowers, however, came from my mother. She would teach us flower names as we were driving into the city and we’d have to repeat them on the way back. I had a real love for the Australian bush – I grew up about an hour outside of Sydney in an artistic community. Everybody lived in creative homes – houses that were purpose-built. We would spend a lot of time at each other’s places, so we shared ideas. It wasn’t until I lived in New York City in my twenties that it hit me quite how much I missed belonging to nature. I would pester florists, trying to catch all that makes a flower studio unique and addictive: the water on the surfaces, the combination of blooms, air infused with pollen, the movement of the people inside. Fragrance came later when I grew very close to a perfumer, [the late] Sandrine Videault, who really opened up my world and made me dissect flowers more vigorously and fall even more deeply in love with them for their complexity.

TP: What took you to New York?

SH: I went straight from school to a job – I worked in an advertising agency. I started dating a guy, and he needed to relocate to New York for his work, so we moved together and began a life there. I found a very satisfying new job as assistant to the executive publisher of Artforum. That changed my life. My boss was a real flower fanatic, so he and I would go to the flower market whenever we could. We’d create arrangements and throw these beautiful dinner parties – often for artists. At that point I began to feel that I had a great love for creating environments with flowers. I ended up separating from the man I had moved to New York with, and came back to live in Australia where I discovered that my sister was doing a course with flowers, so I joined her. It was quite a traditional course, and it gave me a lot of background knowledge, but I very quickly peeled off and found work with various florists that I admired. That’s when my career with flowers started. By then I was in my mid- to late-twenties, and I was a flower fanatic. Obsessed. And I simply haven't stopped.

TP: You have produced commercial fragrances, and I imagine there is a strong synergy between being a perfumer and running a flower business. What, beyond olfactory and visual sensitivity, brings these two areas of your work together?

SH: Fragrance is an expansion of my flower obsession – a means of capturing flowers in another way. I didn’t really consider it as a professional path until quite recently. We have just finished our fifth fragrance, in fact. It is based on the Boronia flower, which I recall from my childhood. It’s typically grown in Tasmania. I have been working with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour on that project.

TP: What are some of your other sources of inspiration when thinking about fragrance?

SH: I love unusual experiences within fragrance – not always the most obvious things. I went to a seminar not long ago, and the person speaking asked us what our favourite early childhood smells were. Mine was the inside of a horse’s ear. I had a little pony when I was a child, and I remember sniffing his ear and just getting such enjoyment out of that smell. When I was very little, we had a wonderful creek at the bottom of our valley – our house sort of cantilevered over a rock precipice on an unusual piece of land – and I loved all the smells of the creek, with its different types of foliage and beautiful mosses. I adored the earthiness – muddy and dank, and the scent of the different seasons.

TP: Away from flowers and fragrance, what do you take inspiration from?

SH: Nature is, of course, the best muse for me, but I also look to form and scale in sculpture – the work of Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti and Isamu Noguchi. I am drawn to architecture by the likes of Antoni Gaudi, Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Marcio Kogan and Isay Weinfeld. Photography too – Irving Penn, Karl Blossfeldt, Nick Knight, David LaChapelle… The list is endless.

TP: The Flower Whisperer at Yellow House was a project that seemed complex. How did the idea first come about?

SH: The idea started with “Spiegel im Spiegel”, one of my favourite pieces of music, written by Arvo Pärt in 1978. Its title translates as “mirror in the mirror”. I often play it in the studio while we work. One day, I was trapped in a client’s elevator which was completely mirrored. I had a trolley full of flowers in the middle of it. The reflection captured my imagination and sent me on a tangent. Then I invited creative director Tony Assness on board and we began the ride together. Our immediate consideration was the Australian Art Quartet and how to create an environment for the audience that would envelop us all in a midnight garden: lighting, seating, the set change during the interval, the outfits for the quartet, painting the space black, and, most importantly, the photography and the technical details of the printed surface that we would use to create a floral landscape.

“My training was in my childhood. My father coached me in observing nature and style, and in striving for excellence in creative work. My obsession with flowers, however, came from my mother.”

TP: How would you define the professional dynamic that exists between you and your partner Gary?

SH: We’ve got very different styles in terms of our creative lives, but I appreciate his eye. When I work with Gary we are completely on the same page. I never have to try and steer him in any direction; I know it will always be exactly as I imagine, if not better. I love the strength of his work – its masculinity and its purity. Everything is very direct, very strong, with his own powerful personality to back it up. There’s nothing ambivalent about it.

TP: Where do you see Grandiflora going? Will you remain relatively domestic, or do you see it becoming a bigger, more international brand?

SH: I’d like to make the fragrance side more international – although I have worked overseas a fair amount. We did a beautiful fragrance launch at Fenwick department store in London a few autumns ago, and I’ve done various pop-ups in Milan and New York. On the flowers side, we’ve done a lot of fashion work, and lots and lots of weddings, to date. I have probably said yes to pretty much everything for the last twenty years, but I’m getting to the point where I want to be a lot more focused. I’m not looking at franchising or becoming a massive global brand or anything like that. On the contrary, I’m more interested in refining things, being more pronounced and more potent whatever we decide to do. I would like to experiment more with the specialised installation of unique environments as well. I’m also focusing on our fragrances and extending the range. We created two signature candles with Cire Trudon, and we’re looking to continue with a vase range and hand cream. But I will always be involved in creating with flowers. It holds such a special place in my life. It’s who I am.